Initial release 5th November 1932
Director Charles Brabin
Screenplay by Irene Kuhn
Cinematography by Tony Guadio
Music by William Axt
Released by MGM
Run Time 68 minutes
Boris Karloff Dr. Fu Manchu
Lewis Stone Sir Denis Nayland Smith
Karen Morley Sheila Barton
Charles Starrett Terry Granville
Myrna Loy Fah Lo See
Jean Hersholt Dr. Von Berg
Lawrence Grant Sir Lionel Barton
David Torrence McLeod
In the opening scene of The Mask of Fu Manchu, Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) is called to the office of Commissioner Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) of the British Secret Service. He is asked, in Nayland Smith’s words, a very funny question. ‘Do you love your country?’ He replies with the answer, definitely yes, he will never love another. We now find out the motive for the question. He is being asked again to risk his life for it. He is astonished to learn that Smith is well aware of his proposed expedition to the edge of the Gobi Desert to seek the tomb of Genghis Kahn. Smith tells Barton that the golden mask and scimitar of Genghis Kahn are also being sought by Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff), who believes that with these artefacts in his hands, he can unite the Asian races in a war against the West by claiming he is Genghis Khan come back to life. Only Barton getting to the tomb first can prevent such a catastrophe.
Later, at the British Museum, we see a gathering of Barton’s archaeologist friends in earnest discussion about their pet topics. They are joined by another member who is surprised to hear that Sir Lionel had not yet arrived. The view is that it is a funny time to call a meeting. We then see Barton arrive and walk through the museum. On his way he passes a mummy case, but as he does, so we appear to see that its eyes are following him. We also see the case open to reveal a man inside.
Barton tells his colleagues that he thinks he has discovered the tomb of Genghis Kahn. Von Berg (Jean Hersholt) and McLeod (David Torrence) immediately agree to accompany him on his expedition. He shows them his proposed route on a giant wall map of Asia. He also warns them of the danger from Fu Manchu. He promises great acquisitions for the museum. As Barton leaves however, he is attacked by three sinister figures, who with the aid of chloroform, are able to overpower him and abduct him.
Some days later, Sheila Barton (Karen Morley) and her fiancé, Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett), wait in the offices of Nayland Smith, frantic for news of Sir Lionel. Smith arrives , but tells the couple that he has no news. That is until he picks up a telegram from his desk. He opens it in front of them. It reads ‘ Barton believed captive of Fu Manchu somewhere near Liangchow. Advise immediate, but secret action’. Sheila on hearing that Fu Manchu is involved becomes very emotional and visibly frightened. She fears for her father’s life. Fu Manchu they fear will do anything to get Sir Lionel to divulge the secrets of the tomb. When Sheila hears that Von Berg and McLeod intend to go ahead with the expedition anyway, Sheila insists upon going with them, arguing that her expert knowledge, gleaned from her father, will save days of searching. Despite their protests she tells them she is going anyway.
We now move to the lair of Fu Manchu. He calls for Sir Lionel, who immediately protests about what has happened to him. His protests are ignored and he is told to sit. Fu Manchu, our villain, goes through his credentials stating that out of respect, he should be addressed as doctor. Barton is very cynical of this request. Fu Manchu attempts to bribe him about the whereabouts of the secret tomb, first by the offer of money, then by the offer of his own daughter, Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy). Sir Lionel rejects both with scorn, saying he not for sale. He is escorted away.
We soon learn his fate. He is to be subjected to the torture of the bell. This involves lying underneath a gigantic, constantly ringing bell. We see Sir Lionel strapped into position underneath it. Fu Manchu goes to great lengths to explain the total discomfort his victim will experience. The deafening sound, the inability to move or sleep and the terrible thirst. He is also told that he will lie there day after day until he tells. We see and hear the bell start to toll. With an evil smirk on his face we see our evil doctor leave the bell chamber.
The camera keeps coming back to the torture chamber in between scenes of the discovery of the tomb, but Sir Lionel cannot be broken. We see him tempted with fruit and even offered a drink which turns out to be salt. The offer of sleep is also a very tempting option. He still holds out.
Eventually the expedition uncovers the entrance to Genghis Khan’s resting place and Von Berg, McLeod, Granville and Sheila lower themselves into the underground tomb. They discover doors made of solid gold protecting it and force them open. They read an inscription which reminds them of the curse of the gods that will descend upon them forever if they enter. Inside they find the skeleton of Genghis Khan, wearing the legendary golden mask, with the golden scimitar resting across its lap. As Terry removes the mask we see a giant spider crawl from one of its eye sockets and the team’s Chinese workmen suddenly rush into the chamber. They throw themselves at the skeleton’s feet as a mark of respect and it requires our archaeologists to fire a gun into the air to disperse them.
Meanwhile, Fu Manchu gathers in his palace the leaders of all the Asian nations. We see a brief fight by gladiators provided as entertainment and then hear our host tell his guests that he has brought them there for great tidings. He admits to them that he is the most unfortunate of men as he has no son as an heir and asks them in shame to accept a message from his insignificant daughter. He summons Fah Lo See, who announces that she has seen a vision and that the prophecy is about to be fulfilled. In a final message intended to fuel the audience, she states Genghis Khan comes back. Genghis Khan leads the east against the world. We then see them all get to their feet and rally to the cause.
Our archaeologists now arrive back in town where they discover Nayland Smith waiting for them. He leads them into a deserted house, warning them not to turn on any lights as the house must appear empty. Sheila is told there is no news of her father. He also tells the group that he knows that Fu Manchu is in the vicinity, and that it is imperative that the artefacts are shipped out of the country as soon as possible. He also tells them that they must leave as well.
The artefacts are placed for the night in an attic room and McLeod is asked to take the first watch, but he insists he wants to stay up all night to ensure everything is alright. He is locked in for safety. Fu Manchu’s henchmen are watching and we see them climbing trees and throwing a scaling hook to enable them to gain entry into the house. We see one slide across from a tree on a rope and appear at the window of the room where the artefacts’ have been stored. He throws a well aimed knife into the back of McLeod, but before he dies, McLeod is able to turn, aim and shoot his murderer. The henchman falls dead from the open window. This commotion wakes everybody up and they rush to see what all the noise was about. They find their companion dying on the floor of the room.
The next day, after Mcleod is buried, Nayland Smith warns that they are not safe where they are and that nobody is to leave their compound. Nayland Smith also tells Terry that there is a possibility that Sheila could be a target. He then goes to make preparations for their departure, leaving Terry on guard. As he watches in the garden, a gruesome memento suddenly drops at Terry’s feet. A human hand, wearing a distinctive ring – Sir Lionel’s ring.
Following on, we see the arrival of an emissary from Fu Manchu, who after making threats about Sir Lionel, offers to trade Barton for the priceless artefacts. Terry has misgivings feeling that to give the sword and mask to Fu Manchu would be betraying the whole expedition. Emotions run high, but finally Sheila persuades him to take the relics to Fu Manchu without Nayland Smith’s knowledge.
Terry arrives at the Fu Manchu hideout and give the sword and mask to him. When Terry asks for Sir Lionel’s release we hear him make the unlikely claim that Sir Lionel is his guest not his prisoner. You would now expect our villain to be content with his lot, but instead, we see an element of doubt creep into his eyes. He move’s over to what appears to be an electronic test bed. The sword is placed between the two electronic poles and the current turned on. It passes through the sword and we see it destroyed. A fake. Nayland Smith had switched them. Terry protests that he had no knowledge of the switch, but he is taken away and we see Fah Lo See follow with a sadistic smile on her face. We see our hapless emissary being strung up by his hands and then stripped to the waist. He is whipped on the instructions of Fah Lo See and eventually taken away and placed on the daughters bed in her chamber. It appears she has taken a shine to him despite his treatment. This is stopped by her father, who thinks Terry is best used as a bargaining tool for the artefacts.
We next see Sheila being questioned by Nayland Smith, who does not believe she knows nothing about the artefacts and Terry. At this moment the pace changes as we see a twist to our story. We hear a knocking at the door. Our party rush to open it and discover a rickshaw has been left outside. From it drops the body of Sir Lionel Barton followed by a piercing scream from Sheila, as she sees her father’s body. On his forehead has been branded a dragon emblem. Distraught, Sheila is given a sedative to help her sleep.
The decision of Nayland Smith is to try to rescue Terry. His instruction is for the real sword to be taken to Peking if he does not return within 24 hours. Von Berg is to watch over Sheila and not to let her out of his sight. Von Berg wishes him luck, of which, he is going to need every bit, if he is going to track down Fu Manchu.
He visits the Goy Lo Sung bazaar which is suspected as Fu Manchu’s haunt. This is confirmed when we again see our threatening emissary as one of the traders. Nayland Smith tells him that he is looking for a little comfort, pleasant dreams? He produces some cash and is led away and down into a room where there are beds. Most of the beds are occupied and our hero examines each occupant, but obviously does not find what he is looking for. He returns to what appears to be a cafe area and sits down to wait. At this stage he recognises the dragon mark on one of the customers. What course of action now? He decides to create a diversion and throws a lamp which bursts into flames. The result is panic. The man with the dragon mark on his shoulder rushes away with Nayland Smith following . The man is seen to retrieve a hidden key and disappear behind a door. Nayland Smith eventually follows and discovers an idol on the other side. On examining the idol he hits a hidden button and falls into an underground chamber. There are snakes as he explores further and as a means of defence, he draws his gun for protection. He is eventually confronted by Fu Manchu and after a brief exchange of words where Fu Manchu is told Nayland Smith wants Terry back, he is led away to the place where Terry is being kept.
Terry is lying on a slab. Fu Manchu again baits his old time adversary with what his ultimate aims are and then has Nayland Smith taken away. Terry, we discover, is to be injected with a serum which appears to come from a spider and a snake and is mixed with the seven sacred herbs . We see it being prepared as Terry looks on helpless. It is intended to make him temporarily obedient to Fu Manchu. The serum is injected.
Once again the pace increases. We are treated to a storm. Terry arrives back at the house , but Sheila who is no fool, remarks that he appears drugged. Terry does however tell Sheila and Von Berg that Nayland Smith wants them to bring the sword and mask to him. Sheila still senses something is wrong, as she once again expresses her doubts about his state of mind. He is not the real Terry . With the storm raging and torrential rain, Von Berg , however, digs up the real relics. We see them put onto a cart and they are driven off into the dark and rainy night. Into a trap.
The real sword and mask are now brought to Fu Manchu and Sheila finally has confirmation as to Terry’s state of mind, as she witnesses how he greets Fah Lo See. The real sword is successfully tested. Fu Manchu now tells his guests about their impending fate. Sheila is to be sacrificed and the rest of the party are to be executed at sunrise the following day. They are to be the first white martyrs to perish at the hands of the new Genghis Khan. Sheila does however manage to break away and run over to Terry and start to plead with him. Suddenly there is recognition in his eyes. Back to his senses? To no avail, as they are led away to their fate.
Dawn. We now see the fate that awaits our heroes. Nayland Smith is to be lowered into a crocodile pit, and Von Berg placed between two sets of metal spikes inching toward each other. Sheila is seen being prepared for her fate before being taken to the temple. Terry, you could argue, is the fortunate one, as he is prepared for another dose of the serum. This will make him the permanent slave of the whims of Fu Manchu’s daughter. Until she of course tires of him.
The next scenes are interspersed between views of Fu Manchu’s new followers assembling in the temple to celebrate the arrival of the new Genghis Khan and the sacrifice of Sheila. Fu Manchu is seen in full robes and wearing the mask. He also takes the sword and raises it above his head to rally his followers.
We see Nayland Smith slowly being lowered into the crocodile pit, desperately trying to free himself from his bonds. As you would expect from the head of the Secret Service he eventually succeeds and frees himself. He escapes by lowering himself into the pit and climbing out. His next successes are in freeing Terry before he is injected and Von Berg from the spikes before they close and impale him.
Next comes a sci-fi slant to our story. Our escapees discover one of Fu Manchu’s ray machines, a death ray that shoots an electric current. They are able to open a trapdoor and looking down they see the scene below. The temple with Fu Manchu in all his finery sitting before Sheila, who is on the altar. The followers look on . Terry now rushes off to free his loved one, whilst our other two heroes agree to cover him using the ray machine.
The scene that follows is sheer comic book delight. The ray machine is used to incapacitate Fu Manchu, whilst we see Terry rush in from the wings, grab the sword and kill our villain before he can execute Sheila. While Terry frees Sheila and carries her away, Nayland Smith and Von Berg incinerate Fu Manchu’s followers using the ray gun. With the ray gun still doing its good work, they make good their escape.
In the final scene a ship in seen sailing away, our escapees all safely aboard and Nayland Smith about to toss the sword into the sea. Then, just as we thought it was all over, we hear an oriental gong! Relief, it turns out only to be for dinner! Nayland Smith asks the waiter if by any chance he is a doctor of philosophy , or law, or medicine. He is just checking our waiter is not Fu Manchu in disguise. Our waiter moves on still banging the gong, ‘ dinner is served, dinner is served’
Nayland Smith finally tosses the sword over the side.
Sax Rohmer wrote the novel and wanted Karloff because of his natural lisp. It made him sound like a hissing snake in his hateful role as Fu Manchu. The film follows the MGM structure. Headline star, good supporting cast and a lavish production. The sets by Cedric Gibbons are great to look at and are supported by great photography by Tony Gaudio. The combination of the malevolent and menacing Karloff teamed up with his sadistic daughter Myrna Loy are a treat to view. There is no room for compassion with these two. I have always been a fan of the later films which starred Christopher Lee as the villain, but this has to be the grandfather of them all. You could compare the 1930’s horror genre to good wine. The older it gets the better it gets. This makes this film vintage. It has creativity and originality. The story has endured over the years and never seems to fade.
“The Mask of Fu Manchu” was directed by Charles Brabin, a very experienced director of silent’s, who after the introduction of sound, directed several “talkies” before retiring. Brabin’s experience in silent films may be the reason behind the very visual flare of the movie, as he gives an amazing use to Tony Gaudio’s cinematography to create one of the most stunningly looking pieces of science fiction of the 30’s. It truly does justice to the feeling of the pulp novels where the story had its origins. The whole script seems to show that our writers were actually inside their characters and the result is a haunting mix of sadistic eroticism that previous incarnations of Fu Manchu lacked. Interestingly, this movie, Brabin’s 8th film with sound, was originally to be directed by Charles Vidor, but he was apparently fired after a few days of shooting and Charles Brabin replaced him.
Now to the bit that seems to draw me. Brought up on the Saturday Matinee serials, the ingenious tortures involving crocodiles, huge bells, and moving walls of spikes, zombie potions and a lot more keep the interest going and we didn’t keep having to come back next week! We have every cliché from the book and then some. At one point, a victim to whom Fu Manchu has lovingly described the tortures he is about to suffer actually cries at him, “Fiend!” Great stuff.
Any niggles? I cannot get used to the actor playing Nayland Smith. In the Hammer version where Nigel Green plays him you can accept his role as being more than a match for our villain. An Indiana Jones type character. Here, poor old Lewis Stone is in the fatherly role and looks more suited to a nice pair of slippers and an open fire.
Of the many talented actors of the likes of Harry Agar Lyons, Warner Oland and Christopher Lee who have played the famous criminal, Boris Karloff in the 1932 film has to be the best, but Christopher Lee, where I first got hooked, has to be a close second.
Do you love your country, Nayland Smith asks Barton
Barton tells his companions he has found the tomb of Ghengis Khan
Barton is kidnapped
Barton and Fu Manchu meet
The torture of the bell. You will talk
They discover the tomb of Ghengis Khan
The native helpers fall to their knees and pay homage
McLeod is murdered by one of Fu Manchu’s henchmen
Terry Granville hands over the mask and sword of Ghengis Khan. Fakes ?
Sir Lionel Barton has been murdered by Fu Manchu
Out for revenge, Nayland Smith is confronted by our villain
The evil man has now captured all our hero’s. Their fate is sealed
Sheila is prepared for her sacrifice
Nayland Smith escapes to free his companions
Ray Gun to the rescue
Terry saves the day and kills our villain
The sword of Genghis Khan is cast into the sea. Lost for ever